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Pranayama for Everyone: Bhramari Breath Practice
One of the dirty secrets of the yoga world is how few yoga practitioners—and how few teachers—do pranayama, yogic breathing exercises. It's better in some yoga traditions than others, but overall I've been shocked to see how few of my colleagues practice pranayama regularly. This is a shame!
The breath is probably the single best way to affect the autonomic nervous system, which in turn controls the function of every internal organ, as well as systems like digestion and immunity. Pranayama can also be the gateway into meditation and higher yogic practices. Furthermore, there is a potential synergy: the regular practice of pranayama can make your asana practice subtler and more refined, and your meditation deeper and more concentrated. For therapeutic purposes, I believe there is synergistic benefit from doing some asana, along with pranayama, meditation, and other yogic practices.
Some schools teach that only experienced practitioners should attempt yogic breathing practices. There is wisdom in being careful, as pranayama done incorrectly—and especially if it's done too aggressively—can lead to problems with the nervous system and, in extreme cases, to psychological decompensation. But there are a few basic pranayama practices that I have found are safe for virtually everyone, and I'll be writing about them in this and my next few blog posts.
I'll begin today with one of my favorites: Bhramari [pronounced brah mah REE], which means the "buzzing of the bees." Although, in my experience, this is one of the pranayama techniques that's rarely taught (at least in many traditions), it's simple, safe, and has tremendous therapeutic potential.
To do a simple version of Bhramari, sit in a comfortable upright position as you would for meditation. Keeping your mouth closed, with your exhalation make a low- to medium-pitched humming sound in your throat. As you make the sound, which should last the entire length of the exhalation, tune into the literal vibration of the sound waves in your throat and even in your skull and brain. Then inhale through your nose, and if you're comfortable, repeat. Try to make your transitions into and out of each humming exhalation as smooth as possible.
At first, you might try Bhramari for a minute, but if it's goes well you can progress to a few minutes at a time. Depending on your breath capacity, the exhalation might vary from short to quite long. I'd suggest doing as long an exhalation as feels completely comfortable. At all times, each subsequent inhalation should be smooth, without any breath hunger. If you are feeling at all short of breath, you've likely pushed harder than you should, and if so, simply take a catch up breath and then resume Bhramari. If you feel at all agitated, I'd suggest you suspend the practice for the day and try it again another time with shorter exhalations.
Most people who do Bhramari as I've described it above will find the practice soothing. Since you will be lengthening your exhalation relative to your inhalation, the Bharmari breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and within a few breaths can bring you to a greater sense of relaxation and calmness. According to the classic text Hatha Yoga Pradipika, "with regular practice of bhramari, bliss arises in the heart."
A recent study Immediate effect of a slow pace breathing exercise Bhramari pranayama on blood pressure and heart rate suggested that the practice can lower blood pressure. In my yoga therapy work, I've found it useful for stress and various stress-related conditions, including insomnia (try a low-pitched sound). It's also useful for nasal congestion due to colds, allergies or sinus infections (use a slightly higher-pitched sound so that you can feel your nose and sinuses vibrating).
I even sometimes recommend Bhramari as a meditation alternative for people who find their minds so distressingly busy when they sit that they can't do the practice. It's harder for the monkey mind to go wild over the racket the buzzing of the bees makes internally, allowing you to settle in something moving in the direction of meditation.
Original published on Yoga for Healthy Aging
Timothy McCall, M.D. is a board-certified internist, the Medical Editor of Yoga Journal and the author of two books, Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing and Examining Your Doctor: A Patient's Guide to Avoiding Harmful Medical Care. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications, including the New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Public Citizen’s Health Letter, and many others. For more information, visit his webpage http://www.drmccall.com/